ST. LOUIS - Christie Huck not long ago was a mother trying to
find a school for her 4-year-old.
Today, she leads the top-performing charter school in the city,
with results in some areas on this year's state tests rivaling that
of suburban districts.
City Garden Montessori, just north of Tower Grove Park,
outperformed not only St. Louis Public Schools' overall passing
rates in communications arts, but many districts in surrounding
counties, as well as the state average. Its passing rates in math
were on par with the state average, at about 55 percent.
"By traditional measures, we're getting strong outcomes," said
Huck, executive director of the school.
While the school can be held up as a success story, it also
illustrates the stark contrast in state test results at charter
schools attended by more than 11,500 students last year in the city.
Charter schools were introduced to St. Louis more than a decade
ago as independent public schools that would be an alternative to
struggling city schools. And test scores from the Missouri
Assessment Program released last week show that several of the
charter school campuses are performing better than St. Louis Public
Schools on math and communications arts - some by wide margins.
But almost as often, charter schools are falling short of city
averages. In fact, at the worst-performing charter schools, students
were at least three times less likely to pass 2012 state exams than
their peers at St. Louis Public Schools.
Still, charter school advocates see grounds for optimism.
For starters, they point to the closure earlier this year of
Imagine schools, a network of six campuses that attracted 3,800
children despite abysmal results on state tests.
For some, shutting down the schools was part of a renewal for the
charter movement here. That's occurred as many of the city's
original charter schools - often managed by large national firms -
have closed, to be replaced by smaller schools backed by grass-
Several of the newer schools, such as City Garden Montessori and
KIPP Academy, have opened as part of an effort by Mayor Francis
Slay's office to support charter schools he believes can succeed.
Some of those new schools are showing promising test scores, even
as others lag. Still, charter school advocates urge caution.
"We see some charter schools making great strides," said Doug
Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Public Charter School
Association. "But we also have to look at how we have a lot of kids
coming into a school significantly below grade level."
If a student, for example, attended a poorly performing school
from kindergarten through fifth grade, his sixth-grade scores on the
state tests won't necessarily show the strength of academics at his
Robbyn Wahby, the education liaison to Mayor Slay, said: "You
can't say, 'Well, the charter schools aren't performing because they
weren't able to get that child to the state standard in one year.'
That's a ridiculous expectation."
Take South City Preparatory Academy, for example. In its first
year, the school's internal tests show the students have averaged
1.9 years' worth of growth in reading and 1.7 years' worth in math,
said Mike Malone, head of school. But even then, the progress was
not enough to put some students at grade level in those areas on the
state tests taken last spring.
He calls the results released this week a "gut check."
Parents are key
One thing is certain when it comes to charter schools in St.
Louis: They have been popular with parents, even amid questions
about their performance.
Some say that while parents may pay attention to state
standardized tests scores, they're just one factor in picking a
charter school. …